Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Million dollar man

Click to "embiggen" all photos in this post

Who's this fierce fellow, hanging out high above the stage of the Million Dollar Theatre for almost 100 years?

This weekend, the Los Angeles Conservancy presented its annual holiday matinee movie, "Scrooge!" - a musical version of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" - at the Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles.

I'd been inside the building once before, on a Conservancy Tour in 2007. But chances to see inside the splendid movie palaces that still line Broadway are rare, so on the spur of the moment, I headed downtown with my new camera, to get a rare look inside this historic building.

The theatre was built in 1918 by a young up-and-coming theatre man, Sid Grauman. He and his dad had gotten their start in the entertainment business in Dawson City, Alaska during the gold rush years - they had gone bust as far as gold was concerned, but promoting boxing matches and other acts for the prospectors had been a winning business. They moved to San Francisco and bought a vaudeville theatre they outfitted for showing the new-fangled moving pictures. It was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

In Los Angeles in 1918, Sid teamed up with Adolph Zukor, a former fur merchant who now worked with Paramount, to build a theatre in a new office building going up on the corner of 3rd Street and South Broadway.

Sid had ideas about the new motion picture business, and the theatres built to show them. Early motion picture theatres were small facilities - converted storefronts or old remodeled opera houses. Only one new theatre - Clune's Theatre a few blocks south on Broadway - had been built specifically for the purpose of showing moving pictures, back in 1910.

But Sid Grauman was ambitious. He wanted something special. He wanted the best theatre in town. He had ideas about the kind of experience audiences would pay for. He wanted to create an environment where escaping into a fictional, fantasy world was enhanced and all-encompassing. He wanted the best theatre in town.

When the new Grauman's Theatre opened, it amazed everyone in town. The building's exterior, designed by Albert C. Martin in the Spanish Colonial style, with decor by Jose Moro, in elaborate Churrigueresque detail, with statuary evoking both mythological figures, symbols of the arts, and American details, like the heads of bison and Texas longhorn cattle.

At about 2300 seats, it was bigger than the houses over on Main Street, Los Angeles' established theatre district. It was bigger than Clune's Theatre, further south on Broadway, which had been built in 1910 for showing moving pictures. It had an evaporative cooling system. It had something called a Hansen seating device, which used sensors in each seat to indicate by a lighted panel for ushers which seats were available. It had a pipe organ that rose up from the orchestra pit, and a projection booth located at the front of the balcony, so that the picture would be bright and there would be no keystone effect.

Auditorium designer William Lee Woollett drew audiences into the fantasy as soon as they entered the lobby, with its huge domed ceiling and fantastic wall murals, one illustrating the Ruskin fairy tale, others with scenes from Shakespeare, the Bible and mythology. Inside the auditorium, a massive stone arch framed the proscenium, flanked on either side by soaring Greek columns, and organ screens that were over-the-top in their Churrigueresque excess.

Movies and vaudeville had existed together in the same venue previously, but Sid Grauman pioneered the idea of a coordinated program, called a "Prologue"with live entertainment enhancing the theme of the show on the screen. Shows regularly sold out, sometimes with lines outside the ticket window that stretched down the block.

The line this weekend for "Scrooge!" stretched around the corner of Third Street, where the windows of the Botanica displayed statues of saints and deities. The doors opened a good 45 minutes before curtain, so that theatre fans could wander the auditorium, lobby and mezzanine and take photos, chat, or enjoy treats from the refreshment stand.

In the 1945, the Million Dollar was taken over by Metropolitan Theatre Corporation and staged live presented musical acts such as Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford and other big bands. Then in 1950, it was managed by Frank Fouce, a Spanish language entertainment promoter, who booked Mexican and Latin American live artists such as Dolores de Rio, Maria Felix, and Celia Cruz. He alternately showed Spanish language films, often premiering major Mexican films. The Million Dollar Theatre became the best known Spanish cinema in the region.

It was during the '60s that the lobby was remodeled with a drop ceiling and a simplified foyer. The dome and the painted concrete walls were covered.

In 1993 Metropolitan closed the theatre, and leased it to a church. The church removed the name "Million Dollar" from the marquee - I guess the evocation of money was considered unseemly. The muraled auditorium walls were painted over with white paint, and nude statuary was draped for modesty's sake.

In 1998, the church moved out and the theatre was closed, serving only on occasion as a film location.

The current lease-holder, Robert Voskanian, began a restoration in 2007, and re-opened the theatre in 2008 with live performances, films, and presentations. He is working with the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation to help revitalize the area as part of the Bringing Back Broadway initiative.

Want to learn more about Sid Grauman and his Million Dollar Theatre? Stay tuned for more....


smalltownme said...

I LOVE your L.A. history lessons.

shrink on the couch said...

Because no architectural masterpiece is complete without Texas longhorns ;p

unmitigated me said...

I need a book! Is this the same Graumann of the Chinese Theatre fame?

carmilevy said...

No one tells the story of Los Angeles (LA Story?) as richly as you. I love these entries!

Unknown said...

This is fascinating. I hope the revitalization continues.